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Embracing the hyphen: The predicament of the Indian-American

d debates

For our second set of D Debates, we’re going to be looking at Duke and Desis.

Desi, for those not in the loop about Asian identity terms, is a word used to describe anything of Indian or South Asian origin, whether it be music, food, or even people.

Today, I’m going to provide a different way of thinking about the Indian-American identity as it stands in 2019.

Now before I start, I feel a need to offer a disclaimer. Identity is personal.  I’m going to try here to be as representative and fair as possible, but at the end of the day, these are my views regarding an identity that I belong to, and I am always willing to hear about other experiences.

That said, my biggest struggle as an Indian-American has been figuring out which of the two I am: Indian or American. Because it’s clear to me that there isn’t yet a concrete, separate identity for the Indian-American.

The reason for this is threefold: for one, only about one percent of the American population identifies as Indian-American. A culture grows stronger in proportion to the number of people it encompasses. With such a small population, it’s hard to say we have carved out a distinct or unified identity. Instead, we generally get shuffled to the bottom of the pile, lost somewhere in a sea of black-and-whiteness.

The second reason is that we simply haven’t been around that long. As a counterexample, though their early history in this country is marred by the atrocities of the slave trade, African Americans have been a major part of the United States’ population breakdown since the colonial era. Meanwhile, Indians were barely trickling into America at the end of the nineteenth century, and this rate didn’t pick up until some fifty years later.

Time is a key ingredient in shaping cultures. It creates distinct identities as people live through common experiences and work together to develop cultural traditions. Since Indian migration to the United States has been such a recent phenomenon, it still matters whether we are “first generation” or “second generation.”

And finally, there’s the simple fact that the “Indian” side of Indian-American is such a vastly complex identity. Most Indian-Americans have, at some point in their lives, been victims to that one particularly cringe-worthy question:

Do you speak Indian?

This question is especially painful to those of us who recognize the unbelievable diversity of the Indian subcontinent. Whether you look at its thousands of languages, hundreds of styles of cuisine or seven major coexisting religious groups, it seems clear that India was never meant to be packed into the narrow box of a single identity. When we try to draw the lines to form a singular Indian-American identity, there’s far too many cultures and traditions that could get left out.

Having established, to some degree, that the Indian-American is still a fledgling identity, I ask myself whether we ought to be more Indian or more American. 

I’ll start with the latter. As the son of two immigrants, and the first of my family to be born in this country, I will unabashedly admit that I have spent most of my life trying to be an American. And I know I’m not the only one.

People, especially white Americans, often urge me to be more culturally expressive in public, especially now that the year is 2019 and the words Diwali and Chicken Tikka Masala have gone from “deviant” or “unusual” to silver badges indicating that one is “cultured.”

What they don’t realize is that ten years ago, teachers asked me for the “easy version” after reading my name on the attendance roster and getting befuddled amidst the multisyllabic paradox of my “ethnic” surname. So I adapted, habitually pronouncing my name iambically (pra-NAAV) against the way that my parents intended.

The ugly truth is that I was working towards an illusory goal. The Indian-American couldn’t possibly be American, because no matter how hard he tried, he was not white. Because when someone asked where he was from, he knew based on their tone that what they were actually asking was where was he really from. Because there was no way on earth that someone with that skin tone could possibly call the state of Georgia home.

Well, at least we have the Indian identity to fall back on, right?

Not quite. Perhaps we could have, back before our American accents began bleeding through our native tongues. Or before we labeled ourselves as “American Born Confused Desis” adding in that lethal C-word because we knew we had strayed too far from the identities of our ancestors to merely be Indians born in America.

All I know is that one summer, when I was vacationing in India, I realized that I could no longer call myself an Indian. Or rather, I wasn’t allowed to. Maybe it was the condescension in some of my relatives’ voices when they scoffed at me for messing up a religious ritual. Maybe it was the hot shame in my ears when I stumbled over words of Tamil that were once smoother than milk and honey. In any case, it was clear that I was different. A perpetual outsider.

So what does that leave the Indian-American with? Not the Indian. Not the American. Just the hyphen in the middle. And now, Bobby Jindal has the nerve to get in front of a microphone and tell me that the hyphen doesn’t belong to us, either.

One of the best things I’ve seen at Duke so far is the efforts of so many other Desis to add meaning to that hyphen. I didn’t join Duke Diya, the South Asian society, just so I could “get in touch with my roots.” I joined so I could help validate and define our identity. That hyphen is a sign of adaptation. It means that we have overcome rejection and are working to convert it into something new.

To all the other Indian-Americans in the room, I ask only one thing: own that hyphen. Don’t let the American Desi be written off as “confused.” Give our identity definition, confidence and life, so that tomorrow’s Indian-American won’t have any question as to whether he or she belongs.

Pranav Athimuthu is a Trinity first-year. His column, “D Debates,” runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


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